Knowledge Commons

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Charlotte Hess:

"The knowledge commons is a vast and complex sector. Most aspects concern digital information. In many cases knowledge became a commons when it became digital. It has unique characteristics as a commons. For the most part, it is a renewable resource.

Information has often been cited as a primary example of a pure public good— nonrival and free to all. In our 2003 article, Ostrom and I made the distinction between ideas, knowledge and information artifacts (books, articles, etc.) and information facilities that store the resources (libraries, archives, databases etc.). The distinction is important when analyzing commons, whether looking at economic goods, property rights or social dilemmas. Influential voices in the information/knowledge commons arena are Bollier (2001, 2002a&b, 2004a&b, 2007) looking at gift economies and collaboration; Boyle (particularly 1996, 2002, 2003b) writing about threats from in the “second enclosure movement”; Benkler (1998, 2002a, 2004) describing and advocating commons-based peer production; and Lessig (1999, 2001) illustrating to a general audience how free culture and information are being eroded by legal restrictions on use; Ostrom and Hess (2007) and Hess and Ostrom (2006) have provided an analytical framework for analyzing the knowledge commons.

Early writers on the Internet as a commons were Brin (1995), Felsenstein (1993), Henderson (1995), Hess (1995), Kollock and Smith (1996), and Holman (1997). Rheingold wrote enthusiastically about the virtual community commons in 1993, but didn’t yet name them as such.

Others have written about the ability of the Internet to build or facilitate commons activities (Rainie and Kalsnes 2001; Haplin et al. 2006).

Boyle underscores the complexity of new digital commons when he writes:

The question that remains to be answered is whether the social harm we should be most concerned about is underproduction, overproduction, the tragedy of the commons, the commercialization of an electronic public sphere, the corrosive effect of information technology on privacy, or merely straightforward distributional inequity.

The idea of libraries as commons — a storehouse of democracy — has been championed by Nancy Kranich. She chose this theme during her year as president of the American Library Association in 2000 (Kranich 2003, 2007; see also Bailey and Tierney 2002; and Lougee 2007). Waters (2007) argues for preservation of the digital commons; Cox and Swarthout (2007) describe a digital library commons in practice; Krowne (2003) discusses building digital libraries using peer production.

In the past five-ten years, academic libraries in the US have begun calling their dedicated online digital service areas “information commons” (Beagle 1999; Duncan 1998). There is a separate “commons” literature dedicated to these types of shared library-computer spaces, but this literature is outside the focus of this paper.

Knowledge is also a global commons particularly in terms of provision, access, and the dilemmas of intellectual property rights. It is a global commons that needs to be accessible, equitable, and protected (Lukasik. 2000; Chan and Costa 2005; Holman and McGregor 2005; Maskus and Reichman 2005; M. Cooper 2006; Hess and Ostrom 2007b). It also includes the issues of the global digital divide (Yu 2002; Chen and Wellman 2004; Fox 2005). Armstrong and Ford (2005) is an interesting tool aimed at bridging the African digital divide.

There are many action communities that have come together to counteract forms of information enclosure. The establishment of Creative Commons (2002) [1] and more recently Science Commons [2] has had a profound effect in increasing information in the public domain. Millions of authors through Creative Commons now agree to “some rights reserved” instead of the traditional “all rights reserved” package for copyrighted works.

The open source movement, particularly Free/libre Open Source Software (FOSS) is an important type of new commons (see Lessig 1999, 2006; Schweik 2005, 2007; Yu 2007; van Wendel de Joode 2003; van Wendel de Joode et al. 2003; O’Mahoney 2003; Halbert 2003a; Sawhney 2003; Dorman 2002; Opderbeck 2004; Rao, Wiseman, and Dalkir 2004; May 2006). The two primary foci are peer production and collective action initiatives. Interestingly, the founder of the open source movement, Richard Stallman has renounced Creative Commons for not being open enough. A new movement was recently been established by the Libre Society called Libre Commons [3] which offers a set of licenses that “reject the legalistic and ‘culture as resource’ position of the Creative Commons and instead hope to develop a concept of the creative multitude through political action and ethical practices” (Berry and Moss 2006).

Commons dilemmas on the Internet is the subject of a number of works: email spam (Melville, Stevens, Plice and Pavlov 2006); congestion (Huberman and Lukose 1997; Bernbom 2000); trust (Rheingold 1993; Kollock and Smith 1996).

Some of the writers on the open access and self-archiving movement who consider the movement and/or free content as commons are Poynder (2003), Cahir (2004), Hunter (2005); Toly2005; Geist (2007), and Suber (2007).

As mentioned earlier, the law literature on intellectual property rights and the knowledge commons is extensive. There is a large corpus of works on the expansion of intellectual property rights and/or copyright (Travis 2000; Litman 2001: Boyle 2002; Gadgil 2002; Cohen 2006; Darch 2001; Halvert 2003; Campbell 2005; Ghosh 2007; Loren 2007; Pasquale 2006; Reese 1995; Vaidhyanathan 2001; Van Alstyne 2003; Tavani 2004, 2005; Mitchell 2005). Some are specifically dedicated to the issue of the “copyleft” movement (Ciffolilli 2004; Hill 1999; Nimus 2006). Cohen (2000) and Vaidhyanathan (2004) have written influential works on Fair Use after the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Some focus on increased enclosures from the European Database Directive (David 2000; Boyle 2004). See Runge and Defrancesco (2006) for a good background on historical enclosures and their relevance for intellectual property rights.

Litman wrote about the intellectual public domain as a commons in 1990:

The historical development of the public domain began as a straightforward problem in statutory construction and proceeded through ad hoc articulation in series of cases decided under successive statutes. Traditional explanations of the public domain have failed to justify the cases on principled grounds. When the public domain is viewed as a commons that rescues us from our choice to grant fuzzy and overlapping property rights in unascertainable material, however, some of the apparent contradictions in lines of cases become more transparent

Interest in the intellectual public domain was re-awakened with the Conference on the Public Domain, Duke 2001.

James Boyle’s edited issue of Law and Contemporary Problems 11(2003) is a seminal volume on intellectual property rights, the knowledge commons, and the intellectual public domain. Other publications on the intellectual public domain as a commons are Benkler (1999); Boyle (2002, 2003b); Cohen (2006); Dalrymple (2003); Guibault and Hugenholtz (2006); Haas (2001); Halbert (2003b); Lange (2003); Rai and Boyle (2007); Shaw (2006), and Aoki, Boyle, and Jenkins (2006).

The issues around patents constitute another large part of the knowledge commons, and the science commons subsector (Adelman 2005; Mireles 2004; Powledge 2003; Murray and Stern 2005; Shiva and Brand 2005; Horowitz and Moehring 2004; Janger 2003). The science commons includes the tradition of open science, microbiological commons, nanotechnology, genetic resources and the genomic commons; anticommons; and supercommons. Issues include enclosure, collective action, biopiracy, and overpatenting, sharing taxonomies, grid computing, and collaboratories.

There is a startling large literature on anticommons since Heller’s 1998 article. An anticommons occurs when there are too many owners holding rights of exclusion, so that the resource is prone to underuse which results in a tragedy of the anticommons (Heller and Eisenberg 1998; Hunter 2003; Janger 2003; Mireles 2004; Sim, Lum, and Malone- Lee 2002; Vanneste et al. 2006).

A different kind of science that has been written about as a commons is the science of magic. Loshing (2007) analyzes the knowledge of magic as a common-pool resource with a highly developed set of rules and norms.

The concept of the “semicommons” has been found useful by a number of scholars after Henry E. Smith’s (2000) article arguing that semicommons exist “where property rights are not only a mix of common and private rights, but both are significant and can interact” (Loren 2007).

Another group of works center on the threats and possible enclosure of the open science tradition (Dysen 1999; Eisenberg and Nelson 2002; Kennedy 2001; Merges 1996; Nelson 2003, 2004; David 2004; Shulman 2002; Rai 1999, 2001; Reichman and Uhlir

A search of Lexis-Nexis shows two articles on the anticommons before 1998 and 828 articles between 1998 and 2008 (6-12-08).

2003; Dalrymple 2003; Vaidhyanathan 2001, 2002; Uhlir 2003, 2006; Dedeurwaerdere 2005; Kyläheiko 2005; Cook-Deegan 2007).

An issue of the International Social Science Journal (June 2006) was devoted to the microbiological commons (Cook-Deegan and Dedeurwaerdere; Polsky; Srinivas; Hess and Ostrom; and Dawyndt, Dedeurwaerdere, and Swings). A sixth article in the issue by Daniel, Himmelreich, and Dedeurwaerdere addresses problems of sharing taxonomies and other forms of information on micro- organisms. Donald Kennedy, editor of Science magazine devotes a large section to the commons in his edited volume on the state of the planet (Kennedy 2006: 101-125). A noteworthy international collaborative project by an IUCN consortium of supporters of open access to scientific information has been the Conservation Commons [4]. It is committed to encouraging “organizations and individuals alike to ensure open access to data, information, expertise and knowledge related to the conservation of biodiversity.”

The testimonial to the importance of understanding the global gene pool as a commons is the Porto Alegre Treaty to Share the Genetic Commons. In 2002, Biotech activists from more than 50 nations gave their support for a treaty “which would establish the earth’s gene pool as a global commons. Non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) leaders say they will challenge government and corporate claims on patents on life in every country. The treaty is the first globally coordinated campaign among biotech activists, and already has the support of over 250 organizations.” (See ). Much of the work on genetic (or genomic) commons has to do with enclosures or enclosure threats through corporate patents (Sedjo 1992; Athanasiou and Darnovsky 2002; Aoki 2003; Safrin 2004; Barker 2003; Barnett 2000; Falcon and Fowler 2002; Faye 2004; Helfer 2005; Scharper and Cunningham 2006); the pharmaceutical industry (Rai 2006, 2007); and biosafety (Jepson 2002).

The antithesis of enclosure threats to the knowledge commons is the remarkable growth of mass collaboration and peer production. Yochai Benkler is the leading voice in the study of peer production (Benkler 2004; Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006). He argues that scientific publication is increasingly using commons-based strategies for more global and equitable distribution to information-poor populations of the world (Benkler 2005: 14).

In his influential article “Coase’s Penguin,” he explains:

while free software is highly visible, it is in fact only one example of a much broader social-economic phenomenon. I suggest that we are seeing is the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode ‘commons-based peer-production,’ to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands. (Benkler 2002)

Benkler’s work is placed in the knowledge commons but it also has an important place in the market commons sector. Benkler’s Wealth of Networks is a seminal book on mass collaboration and networks. He writes: As collaboration among far-flung individuals becomes more commons, the idea of doing things that require cooperation with others becomes much more attainable, and the range of projects individuals can choose as their own therefore qualitatively increases” (Benkler 2006: 9).

Also making a major contribution to the understanding of peer production is Michel Bauwens. See Bauwens 2005 and his site: P2P Foundation: which is dedicated to “Research, Documenting and Promoting Peer to Peer Practices. And anyone doing research on networks should also look at the work of Barry Wellman (2005 and at

Early studies of online knowledge commons were those done on virtual communities by Rheingold (1993) and Kollock and Smith (1996). The subsectors in depicted in the map are groups where people physically or virtually come together to accomplish some purpose (Uzawa 2005; Purdy 2007; Coombe and Herman 2004). Rheingold’s Smartmobs13 are types of social commons. Many scientific collaboratories and grid computing projects are commons-based.

Some of the most active de facto commons today are online mass collaborators who work together contributing to information resources such as, the Digital Library of the Commons, Wikipedia and wikis, FLICKR; or bookmarking sharing sites, such as del.ici.ous. Tapscott and Williams’s bestselling book Wikinomics on mass collaboration is inadvertently on the new commons.

An emerging area of study is focusing on “stigmergy” or “stigmergic collaboration” by those interested in the biological connection to commons-like behavior.

Most notable is Australian Mark Elliott who made it the subject of his dissertation. He writes:

“Stigmergic collaboration provides a hypothesis as to how the collaborative process could jump from being untenable with numbers above 25 people, towards becoming a new driver in global society with numbers well over 25,000. The term is from French Biologist’s Pierre-Paul Grasse’s research on termites in the 50’s and “has been applied to the self-organisation of ants, artificial life, swarm intelligence and more recently, the Internet itself.”

See Elliott’s blogs Stigmergic Collaboration and Mass Collaboration

Related terms: collaboratories; collective intelligence, flashmobs; grid computing; non-market forms of crowdsourcing.

Education is a rapidly growing area of commons development. A number of scholars have written about the commodification and corporatization of higher education in the past few years (Argyres and Liebeskind 1998; Boal 1998; Hess 1998; Bollier 2002; Brown 2000; Hall 2001; Strathern 2004; Williams 2005); others are focused on actively building a global education commons through civic education (Crosby 1999; McMurtry 2001; Hepburn 2004; Huber 2005; Kirp 2004; Arvanitakis 2006; Bowers2006; Levine 2007 ). Hellstrom (2003) addresses the problem of governance in the academic virtual commons.

As with libraries and their “information commons, education is now a field abundant with “commons.” The Digital Learning Commons (DLC), for instance, “is a nonprofit organization working to improve access to educational opportunities and learning resources by providing high-quality educational materials, online courses, and technology tools to all students and teachers in Washington State.” ccLearn was recently established by Creative Commons to enable the full potential of the Internet to support open learning and open educational resources (OER). Its mission is to minimize barriers to sharing and reuse of educational materials—legal barriers, technical barriers, and social barriers. The Open Education Resources (OER) Commons is a “global teaching and learning network of free-to-use resources—from K-12 lesson plans to college courseware—for you to use, tag, rate, and review.” (see also Atkins, Brown, and Hammond 2007). The Academic Commons is a community of faculty, academic technologists, librarians, administrators, and other academic professionals who help create a comprehensive web resource focused on liberal arts education. The Education Commons is a virtual community of academic systems users, designers and systems implementers sharing knowledge, experiences and best practices. The goal of the community is to create an open and transparent system of communication between diverse groups committed to advancing the state of education worldwide. It's meant to be a virtual commons, where sharing and participation are key.

There are thousands of education commons-related initiatives from all parts of the globe that are visible on the web. Further study will be needed to separate the wheat from the chaff."

Source: Hess, Charlotte, Mapping the New Commons (July 1, 2008). [5]


Natalie Pang:

"Three salient characteristics of the knowledge commons can be highlighted:

  1. resources that are shared and freely available,
  2. the generation and use of co-created knowledge, and
  3. spaces or facilities that allow for both personal and public discussions.

(thesis, )


By Content Function

Natalie Pang on the Manifestations of the knowledge commons:

"The knowledge commons are constantly changing and mutating. Existing examples are in a constant state of evolution, and new examples continually appear. It is thus not possible to describe all the areas where the concept of the knowledge commons has been manifested. However a selection of key categories of the knowledge commons would need to include the following.

The Information Commons

"The information commons is a term loosely used to refer to resources on the Internet (Bollier, 2004; Beagle, 1999; Hess, 2000) and redesigned or newly designed libraries (Halbert, 1999; Beagle, 1999). It emphasises the free and equitable use of information resources.

In the literature there are two main connotations for the term information commons, namely:

  • the online environment itself, in which digital services can be integrated and distributed effectively at marginal cost across distances.
  • the infusion of technological services in libraries, and used to ‘denote a new type of physical facility specifically designed to organise workspace and service

delivery around the integrated digital environment’ (Beagle, 1999, p 82).

In both cases, the purpose is to provide possibilities for access and contribution to resources, including framework implications such as information architecture design, the design of spaces and facilities, and so on."
( )

The Learning Commons

"Another widespread term is the learning commons, increasingly used by libraries. In the learning commons, library services, resources, technologies, and physical spaces are integrated towards the core purpose of learning. The focus of the learning commons is on cognitive enrichment through integrated access to information resources in various media free to the user at the point of use (MacWhinnie, 2003). Quite often found in academic libraries, the learning commons brings together various functions of the institution under one roof: such as technological support, language and learning services, and of course, the library holdings."

Other scholarly commons

Other applications of the commons include the Cultural Commons, Science Commons (Levine, 2003), the Academic/Scholarly Commons (Hellstrom, 2003; Bollier, 2004), or the Student Commons (Butin, 2000); aimed at engaging participants in creating dialogue around arts, cultural, scientific, anthropological or wider academic or campus issues. In addition to providing access to onsite topical information resources, such examples of the knowledge commons, all follow the collaborative principles and open content licensing frameworks associated with commons models.

The Creative Commons

Last but certainly not least in this selective listing of contexts in which the knowledge commons concept is manifested, is the Creative Commons.

The Creative Commons is not a place – it is an open content licensing framework which seeks to offer a range of access possibilities between demand for full copyrighted-based payment for every use of information resources and totally unrestricted free use."

Authorative vs. Allocative Knowledge Commons Resources

Natalie Pang:

It may be discerned there are two types of resources within the knowledge commons.

A commons exists because ‘common knowledge’ of a community recognises its existence, and some level of rules – however informal and fragmentary – are implied by this recognition. The rules may be as minimal as an understanding of what falls within or outside the physical or virtual boundary of the commons.

Giddens (1984, p. 33) calls such rules ‘resources’, and sees a distinction between ‘authoritative’ and ‘allocative’ resources. An authoritative resource consists in the community consensus that a particular social patterning (otherwise called a social institution) can and should exist – in other words the basic or enabling rule(s). Giddens ‘allocative’ resource consists in the rules that social institutions follow in order to share finite goods among people.

Giddens defined both authoritative and allocative resources as follows (Giddens, 1984, p. 373):

Authoritative resources: Non-material resources involved in the generation of power, deriving from the capability of harnessing the activities of human beings; authoritative resources result from the domination of some actors over others.

Allocative resources: Material resources involved in the generation of power, including the natural environment and physical artefacts; allocative resources derive from human dominion over nature." ( )


Why Knowledge Networks are the new Commons

Esko Kilpi:

"According to simplistic management thinking stimulus and response processes control human behavior: you get what you measure; you get what you reward. This means that people are understood as having no real connection to what they are actually doing.

A somewhat more modern way of thinking states that human beings actively create meaning in life through attempts to understand their own experiences. Intrinsic motivation – peoples’ relation to what they do, the meaning of work – replaces extrinsic rewards. People connect with what they are actually doing.

A new third way of thinking is enfolding. Since we cannot experience everything ourselves, other people become the co-creators of information, experience and meaning. Relations, connecting with others, create a new, networked way of knowing and learning.

As a result, people can now connect both with what they do and with their peers, their network, making them much more knowledgeable than their colleagues who lack these capabilities.

Information is, paradoxically, simultaneously both social and personal, with multiple, variable goals and constantly negotiated premises. Information creators, publishers and curators, are not the traditional verified experts; rather, information is created by a broad collection of reflexive practitioners sharing in the construction and ongoing evolution of a given field.

Information becomes a process of continuous facilitation and networked negotiation. Information networks are a valuable, shared resource making the interactive movement of thought possible.

These networks are the new commons. Sociologists call such shared resources public goods. A private good is one that the owners can exclude others from using. Private has been valuable and public without much value during the era of scarcity economics. This is now changing in a dramatic way, creating the confusion we are in the midst of today.

On the new commons, people with many ties become better informed and have more signaling power, while those outside and with few ties may be left behind. This may be the new digital divide.

Network inequality creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity.

In the age of abundance economics, public is much more valuable than private." (

Herman Daly on the Commonwealth of Knowledge

Herman Daly:

"If you stand in front of the McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland, you’ll see a quotation from Thomas Jefferson carved on one of the stones: “Knowledge is the common property of mankind.” Well, I think Mr. Jefferson was right. Once knowledge exists, it is non-rival, which means it has a zero opportunity cost. As we know from studying price theory, price is supposed to measure opportunity cost, and if opportunity cost is zero, then price should be zero.

Certainly, new knowledge, even though it should be free, does have a cost of production. Sometimes that cost of production is substantial, as with the space program’s discovery that there’s no life on Mars. On the other hand, a new insight could occur to you while you’re lying in bed staring at the ceiling and cost absolutely nothing, as was the case with Renee Descartes’ invention of analytic geometry.

Many new discoveries are accidental. Others are motivated by the joy and excitement of research, independent of any material motivation. Yet the dominant view is that unless knowledge is kept scarce enough to have a significant price, nobody in the market will have an incentive to produce it. Patent monopolies and intellectual property rights are urged as the way to provide an extrinsic reward for knowledge production.

Even within that restricted vision, keeping knowledge scarce still makes very little sense, because the main input to the production of new knowledge is existing knowledge. If you keep existing knowledge expensive, that’s surely going to slow down the production of new knowledge." (

Paul B. Hartzog on Openness in the Knowledge Commons

"Human knowledge is stored in the distributed network of individual human minds, and a repository of human knowledge needs to be stored in a distributed fashion as well, a "knowledge commons," if you will.

What would the Knowledge Commons look like? Fairly simple, as it turns out. Imagine a peer-to-peer network in which everyone could contribute pieces of knowledge, and those pieces would be immediately spliced into bits and replicated throughout the system. Like [email protected] and other distributed computing initiatives, everyone would share the load, so to speak, for the Knowledge Commons.

Importantly, such a system would be open on two fronts:

  1. Open access: the system would be open to both input and output. In other words, anyone could put information into the system, and anyone could obtain information out of the system.
  2. Open development: since the core protocol would be open, changes to it would be community-driven. Furthermore, anyone could develop a client application (or a web application) that would connect to the Knowledge Commons."


Ownership and the knowledge commons

Natalie Pang:

"Bollier viewed the commons as collectively owned by society. In a paper he affirmed his argument, defining the commons as ‘various physical resources, social institutions and intangible cultural traditions that we, the members of a society, collectively own’ (Bollier, 2005, p. 4).

Though not disagreeing that some resources in the commons can be collectively owned, Levine (2003) maintained that many resources in the commons can be seen as unowned by anyone. He gave several examples of how the ‘unowned commons’ can work: such as the Internet, books and music where copyrights have long expired, and software generated under the General Public License. In these examples, the openness and extent to which they are shared freely contribute to the perceived absence of ownership."

More Information

The quotes above from Natalie Pang are from: PhD Thesis: THE KNOWLEDGE COMMONS IN VICTORIA AND SINGAPORE: AN EXPLORATION OF COMMUNITY ROLES IN THE SHAPING OF CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS. By Natalie Pang. For the Faculty of Information Technology Monash University September 2008.

See Also